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In the Swiss resort of Vevey, a handsome young American named Frederick Winterbourne has arrived to visit his wealthy aunt, Mrs. Costello. At his hotel, he meets a rude American boy named Randolph Miller and, moments later, the boy's beautiful and independent older sister, Daisy. Winterbourne, who has lived abroad long enough to become well-versed in European customs and manners, has never met anyone like Daisy. He finds her flirting charming, even if unorthodox- perhaps even outrageous- by European standards.
Daisy announces her desire to visit a nearby medieval castle, and Winterbourne offers to take her. To his utter amazement, Daisy starts making plans to go with him- alone. Her arrangements include neither her mother, her brother, nor her family's courier. Winterbourne can't believe his ears. A young unmarried European woman wouldn't even listen to the suggestion of such an unchaperoned trip, much less propose one herself. Stranger still is the fact that Daisy's mother doesn't seem to object to the idea. Winterbourne's proper aunt, Mrs. Costello, is appalled, though. She won't let her nephew introduce her to these uncultured Americans.
Winterbourne and Daisy make their trip to the castle, but it's less of a romantic adventure than Winterbourne had hoped it would be. He finds some satisfaction, however, when Daisy discovers his plans to return to Geneva the next day and is furious that their time together has been cut short. Winterbourne assures her they'll meet again that winter in Rome, where her family and his aunt will be visiting at the same time.
Winterbourne arrives in Rome the following winter, expecting to find Daisy pining away for him. Instead, his aunt informs him that Daisy has happily surrounded herself with a large circle of "third rate Italians," and adds that one- a Mr. Giovanelli- seems a particular favorite.
The flirtatious behavior that in Vevey brought Winterbourne and Daisy together, now drives them apart. When a wealthy member of the American community, Mrs. Walker, warns Winterbourne that Daisy is endangering her reputation by going out unchaperoned with Giovanelli, Winterbourne tries to stop the couple, only to be treated to a glimpse of them disappearing from view behind Daisy's parasol.
Does Daisy's boldness signal innocence or immorality? That's what Winterbourne must figure out. The conservative American community has already made up its mind, unfavorably. Winterbourne does his best to explain to Daisy that people in Rome don't understand her flirting, and he pleads with her to change her ways. But Daisy mistakes his concern for jealousy, and rejects his advice. One by one, the members of American society in Rome turn their back on the girl, and she is no longer welcome in their homes. Even Winterbourne meets her only by chance.
After one of his friends spies Daisy in a gallery's secluded nook with Giovanelli, Winterbourne is determined to make one last attempt to save her. He goes straight to Mrs. Miller to warn her of the bad reputation her daughter is getting. But to Mrs. Miller's untutored eye, Giovanelli is a gentleman and acceptable for Daisy. She even suspects that Daisy and Giovanelli are engaged. Her suspicion shocks Winterbourne, and when he encounters the couple a few days later, he has a chance to ask Daisy if she is indeed engaged. First she says she is. Then she says she is not.
While walking home one moonlit night a week later, Winterbourne stops in for a look at the Colosseum. He admires the poetic atmosphere of the place, but he also knows that its atmosphere at night is a breeding ground for malaria, "the Roman fever." The monument has two other visitors- a man and a woman- and when their voices reach him he recognizes the couple as Daisy and Giovanelli. His first reaction is one of horror that Daisy is behaving so shamelessly. His second is one of relief. Daisy's indiscretion answers once and for all the question of whether or not she is a "nice girl." The riddle is solved. Winterbourne needn't bother with her any more.
Winterbourne still shows some concern for Daisy's health, however, and urges the couple to leave the ruin as quickly as possible. While Giovanelli is fetching their carriage, Daisy and Winterbourne have a moment alone. Daisy wonders if Winterbourne believed her when she said she was engaged. He answers that it no longer matters if she is or not. When he instructs her to go home and take some medication to prevent the fever, Daisy replies simply that she doesn't care if she catches the Roman fever or not.
Gossip about the escapade at the Colosseum leaks out and is quickly all over town. Soon it is followed by other news- that the pretty American flirt is desperately ill. Through Mrs. Miller, Winterbourne receives a message from Daisy. She wants him to know that she was never engaged to Giovanelli.
Within a week, Daisy is dead of the fever. At her grave, Winterbourne sees Giovanelli, who claims that Daisy was the most beautiful girl he had ever met, and the most innocent. Winterbourne is shocked by this revelation, which shows him the enormous difference between the way things seemed and the way they actually were.
Winterbourne leaves Rome after Daisy's funeral, but he thinks of her often. When he returns to Vevey the next summer to visit his aunt, he tells her that Daisy sent him a message before she died. He didn't understand the message then, but he understands it now. By telling him that she was never engaged to Mr. Giovanelli, she was telling him that she did care about his opinion of her. Winterbourne now realizes that he wronged Daisy Miller. He's spent too long in Europe to understand American ways.
Setting is important in Daisy Miller- so much so that in some ways the nouvelle can almost be seen as a story about a clash of settings. Daisy Miller takes place entirely in Europe- the first half in Vevey, a Swiss resort on Lake Geneva, and the second in Rome. Most of its important characters, however, are American, and one of its most important themes is the way the representatives of the new world confront the experience and restrictions represented by the old. To understand Daisy Miller, then, you must understand both its actual setting- Europe in the late 1860s or early 1870s- and also its "unseen" setting, the home of its characters, America just after the Civil War.
The United States was in that era a nation that was rapidly becoming industrialized and rich. The new industries and wealth worked many changes in American life. Some families found themselves suddenly catapulted into the upper classes to form a new American aristocracy. But this was not an aristocracy based on inherited nobility, as was the aristocracy in Europe, but one based strictly on money. James created a fine fictional example of such a family with the Millers of Schenectady, New York.
Though their wealth allowed them to socialize in the most fashionable circles, these nouveaux riches (newly rich) lacked the education as well as the refined behavior expected in such circles. In the United States, this deficiency did not cause many problems, for numerous families were in the same position. The country was still young, without the centuries of tradition that weighed on Europe.
The wealth that pushed families like the Millers into the American upper class also enabled them to travel abroad for the first time. What would happen when they arrived in Europe, where manners and social classes were far more rigid, where the aristocracy had been in place for centuries, and where a long-established group of Americans sought to fit in by behaving with the same strictness the Europeans exhibited? That question lies at the heart of Daisy Miller.
Although the differences between America and Europe provide the main theme of Daisy Miller, James also takes care to make you notice the differences between one part of Europe and another. Vevey, the Swiss summer resort where the story opens, is in some ways a halfway point between America and Europe. It's so packed with travelers from the United States it could almost be an American resort; it seems less stodgy than the rest of Europe. It's a fitting setting for boat rides and walks in the garden, and a fitting place for even a Europeanized American like Winterbourne to become infatuated with a pretty American girl.
The story's second setting is very different. If Vevey in the summer had been carefree, Rome in the winter is gloomily burdened with tradition. Society withdraws into galleries and drawing rooms. The Americans you meet aren't tourists but longtime residents who have made a science of European social codes and demand that everyone within their social group conform to them. Under their influence, Winterbourne- who is one of them- becomes less tolerant of Daisy's uncultivated ways. Though it was Winterbourne himself who suggested an unchaperoned visit to the Chateau de Chillon near Vevey, Daisy's unchaperoned visit to the Colosseum in Rome strikes him as shocking.
Daisy Miller ends unhappily for both its hero and heroine, and in a way that reflects on its settings. By having Daisy die, and by having Winterbourne severely misunderstand her, James condemns the customs both of innocent but ignorant America and cultured but cold Europe. James does not draw a contrast between right and wrong or between good and bad, but between two very different and incompatible worlds.
The following are themes of Daisy Miller.
Daisy Miller belongs to the middle period of the work of Henry James. The works of this period, says his biographer Leon Edel, "mark his emergence as a brilliant and witty observer of life on both sides of the Atlantic," and are characterized by "a preoccupation with problems of conduct"- especially the conduct of American girls. In its style, the work of this period is "minutely descriptive." Here is an example from Daisy Miller:
...she gradually gave him more of the benefit of her glance, and then he saw that this glance was perfectly direct and unshrinking. It was not, however, what would have been called an immodest glance, for the young girl's eyes were singularly honest and fresh. They were wonderfully pretty eyes, and, indeed, Winterbourne had not seen for a long time anything prettier than his fair countrywoman's various features- her complexion, her nose, her ears, her teeth. He had a great relish for feminine beauty; he was addicted to observing and analysing it; and as regards this young lady's face he made several observations. It was not at all insipid, but it was not exactly expressive; and though it was eminently delicate Winterbourne mentally accused it- very forgivingly- of a want of finish.
What does this minutely descriptive passage achieve? First, it draws a very precise portrait of Daisy and of the kind of girl Winterbourne believes Daisy to be- fresh and lovely, but lacking the polish he's used to in European women. It establishes Winterbourne as a careful- but perhaps overly refined- observer of women. And by taking so much time to describe small details of appearance and behavior, James gives these details great importance. On the surface, the events James describes may seem trivial- boating trips, parties, carriage rides. But thanks in large part to his painstaking description of them, they become, in Daisy Miller, matters of life and death.
While James's gift for choosing the exact words to express the subtle shades of meaning he wants to portray has earned him the status of a master prose stylist, his writing can be difficult at first. It demands much of the reader. James employs an enormous vocabulary, which includes archaic English words and expressions borrowed from foreign languages. Daisy Miller offers numerous examples. Winterbourne "chops logic," (argues a minute point). "Elle s'affiche," says Mrs. Walker, using a French phrase to mean that Daisy is making a scene. This richness of vocabulary is, of course, perfectly suited to his tales of wealthy, sophisticated people in cosmopolitan settings.
When James revised Daisy Miller in 1909 for the collection of his novels and tales known as the New York Edition, he added more nature imagery in describing Daisy, reinforcing an impression of her as a natural child of the new world rather lost in the cities of the old. He also made changes that reflected his growing interest in psychology. Abstractions replaced people as the subjects of sentences: "He was a man of conscience" became "His conception of certain special duties and decencies ... was strong...." The reality of things, one reader explains, was replaced with their appearances. "What she said aloud was..." became "...the form she gave her doubt was...." These changes place greater emphasis on- and make more complex- the interior psychological life of the characters.
Point of view refers to the position from which a story is told. One of the greatest impacts James had on modern literature was through his experiments in point of view. Up until his writing, fiction was frequently written from the point of view of an omniscient (all knowing) third-person narrator who was separate from the action of the story but who could describe or comment on any part of the story at any time. What James did was to create a character who became involved in the action of the story, then use that character to tell the story- not necessarily by writing in the first person (Daisy Miller, for example, is a third-person narrative) but nevertheless by filtering the events of the story through that character's thoughts and feelings. This character is often called the central intelligence.
The central intelligence is not always the main character. In Daisy Miller, for example, the main character is Daisy, but the central intelligence is Frederick Winterbourne. He doesn't narrate the book- it's narrated in the third person. But you see everything from his point of view. There is no scene in which he is not present. And having him serve as the central intelligence gives Daisy Miller a slant it might not otherwise have. Unlike a separate, omniscient narrator, the central intelligence is biased by experience. For example, Winterbourne's opinion of Daisy is biased both by his romantic interest in her and by his European upbringing. How reliable is he as a judge of Daisy's character? That's a question you'll want to keep in mind as you read the story.
Once he had created a character (such as Winterbourne) from whose point of view the story could be seen, James generally preferred not to enter that character's mind, but instead had him express his own thoughts aloud- almost as if he were a character in a play. To this end James created another character type, the confidant, as a sounding board. The central intelligence comes to the confidant to talk. The confidant is not as personally involved in the matter and can consider a situation or give advice from a more objective position. James uses the confidant to develop the thoughts of the central intelligence and to give that character an opportunity to express those thoughts, so you can hear them.
In Daisy Miller, Winterbourne's confidant is his aunt, Mrs. Costello. In his discussions with her, Winterbourne learns much of the gossip about the Millers. In describing and defending Daisy to his aunt, he is forced to organize his ideas and clarify his position. Although she never meets Daisy, Mrs. Costello voices many opinions that make Winterbourne think. James's use of Mrs. Costello as Winterbourne's confidant deepens your understanding of him, as well as your understanding of his point of view.
There's considerable disagreement about the form of Daisy Miller. You'll hear it called a nouvelle, a short story, a short novel, and a tale. Let's look at what those terms meant to Henry James.
James used the word "story" to mean any narrative, whether it was a few pages or a few hundred pages in length. He called his long narratives "novels" and his short narratives "tales." Most of his tales range from 10,000 to 20,000 words. When James wrote Daisy Miller in the 1870s, the form you now know as the short story was just becoming widely popular in the magazines of the day. The magazine publishers preferred these stories to be from about 6,000 to 8,000 words long. James found that restriction difficult to follow. Indeed, his tendency to write longer tales kept him out of a great many magazines.
Daisy Miller is a story but not really a short story. James also referred to it as a nouvelle- a French word for the literary form also called (using an Italian word) a novella. The nouvelle is longer than a short story, but shorter than a full-fledged novel. That's a flexible definition, but that flexibility is one of the things that appealed to James about the form, one of the reasons he once called the nouvelle "beautiful and blest." He could make a nouvelle long or short depending on the needs of the narrative rather than on the demands of a magazine publisher. Daisy Miller, he says in one of the prefaces he wrote to the New York Edition of his works, is "pre-eminently a nouvelle; a signal example in fact of the type."
James's nouvelles differ from his novels. In the nouvelle he makes extensive use of narrative summary- that is, he often describes events rather than dramatizing them in detail, and he foreshortens time in order to achieve compactness. For example, many of Daisy's experiences in Rome are related very quickly and in no detail; weeks pass in only a few pages. Daisy Miller does of course, contain dramatic elements also- scenes like the one at Mrs. Walker's party are dramatized and fleshed out as they would be in a full-length novel.
Daisy Miller is also a highly, if simply, structured work. The story divides in half almost exactly. The first half is set in Vevey, the second in Rome. At the beginning of each half, Winterbourne and Daisy meet in a foreign locale. Toward the end of each half, Daisy makes an unchaperoned excursion with a young man to a point of historical interest- first with Winterbourne to Chillon, later with Giovanelli to the Colosseum. In each half, her excursion has consequences. In the first, it earns her a bad reputation. In the second, it leads to her death.
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© Copyright 1986 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.